National Heroes Day is set aside as a public holiday each year to honour those great Jamaicans, who by their work and often ultimate sacrifice, revolted against slavery, secured our freedom, fought for equal rights and justice, guided our Independence, resisted oppression, and in so doing inspired a revolution and an awakening of self-pride and consciousness, not only in Jamaica as a nation but as black people all over the world.
Today we honour the memory of Nanny of the Maroons, symbolic of the fierce and indomitable spirit of resistance in the face of overwhelming power, that has come to define the Jamaican ethos, “little but tallawah.”
I speak of Sam Sharpe, though enslaved, he was a deacon and a teacher. He used his education and his religious standing to inspire his fellow enslaved to rise up against slavery. Sam Sharpe was hanged on May 23, 1832, he along with over 500 enslaved persons paid the ultimate sacrifice of their life for our freedom today. The 1801 Christmas Slave Rebellion he inspired would prove to be instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery in 1834.
Thirty years after emancipation, there was very little meaningful improvement in the condition of the former enslaved. The whole strategy was to make economic survival outside of the plantation difficult. Education, healthcare, housing and fair wages were never considerations of the colonial government. There was no plan to turn the former enslaved people into productive citizens, protected by their state, with rights and entitlement, with a pathway to pursue their wellbeing and prosperity. The colonial government at the time showed no interest in alleviating the poverty and the miserable conditions of the now free population. It is within this context that George William Gordon and Paul Bogle emerged as social activists and political leaders, who provided leadership in the face of the suffering and anguish of the people. This culminated in the October 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion. Both Paul Bogle and George William Gordon were executed, paying the ultimate sacrifice of their life for the improvement of our conditions of living. As a result of their actions, there were some important political and administrative changes to the colonial governance of the island, however, it did not immediately change the economic and social trajectory for the mass of Jamaicans.
At the turn of the 20th century, the globalized political system of colonialism, had by then, largely shed the overtly repressive and exploitative system of slavery. However, freedom did not mean equality and justice for all men. Oppression, prejudice, and segregation, systematically denied colonized people, opportunity. It was within this context that Marcus Garvey gained prominence as an Ideological and intellectual leader of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism. His work and ideas would inspire African revolutionaries, awaken black pride and mobilize black people globally to defend their economic interest, assert their equality, and manifest their political sovereignty. Garvey’s ideology and influence continues to identify Jamaica internationally, today.
By 1938, the social and economic conditions of Jamaican workers were at a boiling point, and it is within this context that Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley would emerge as leaders in the struggle for social justice and economic opportunity. They would also lead the transition from colony to an independent state and lay the foundations of the Jamaican Nation State.
These were pivotal times when the actions of heroes changed the course of history and defined the future we now live in today. We pay our respect and honour to them by solemnly recalling their contributions and placing them in the forefront of our consciousness.
Today, as well, we recall the work and contribution of our frontline workers, particularly our public health workers who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. Many have become ill in the execution of their duties and unfortunately, some have died. Our frontline workers have been heroes in this pandemic, and we express our gratitude to them.
The COVID19 Pandemic would not be the first outbreak of a dangerous disease to cause a public health crisis in Jamaica. In fact, the struggle for our freedom and independence happened alongside our struggles for better public health. In 1851, Jamaica had a serious Cholera outbreak which killed more than 40,000 persons, a 10th of the population at the time. The conditions of living in Jamaica at this time would have contributed to the severity of the outbreak. The lack of basic healthcare for the population would have formed part of the general discontent with living conditions over which heroes like Paul Bogle would have protested.
Diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, influenza, and pneumonia were all rampant at the time and were leading causes of death and contributed to low life expectancy. A Jamaican living at the turn of the century to the 1940s, on average, had a life expectancy of 38 years. All these communicable diseases and the deaths they caused were preventable with better health facilities, better personal and public health practices, and most effectively through vaccines.
By the 1950s and 60s, Jamaica started to introduce regular vaccination programmes in our public health system for diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. During this period our life expectancy increased to 53 years. In the 1970s and 80s Jamaica started to develop a more systematic and robust vaccination programme which significantly reduced or eliminated infections from most of the communicable diseases I mentioned earlier. This robust system of vaccination was put to the test in 1982 when there was an outbreak of polio in Jamaica. Jamaica now had the expertise, systems, and capacity to deploy an island-wide vaccination programme, which has been hailed as an example in public health vaccination responses. We rapidly brought this outbreak under control, and the last reported case of polio in Jamaica was in 1982. The last reported case of local measles was in 1991, the last case of diphtheria in Jamaica was in 1995, the last case of Rubella in 2000, the last case of newborn Tetanus was in 2001. How did we eradicate all these diseases from our land? It was through mass vaccination! In 1986 the government of Jamaica passed regulations to support the full vaccination of all children and made it a condition of their admission to school. Today, every mother routinely and dutifully, now takes their precious babies, toddlers, and adolescents to their local clinic, for their first shots and booster shots. No questions asked! Because of vaccines, preventable diseases are no longer the leading cause of death in Jamaica. Our life expectancy on average is 75 years; we now live longer to enjoy our freedom.
But what are we doing with our freedom? Unfortunately, we have grown complacent with our health attitudes and behaviours, we have forgotten our history and how we got here, to the point where we can take our health and the role vaccines have played in securing our personal and public health, for granted.
Your freedom as a citizen and your right to choose, guaranteed by the Constitution, are not free! Our heroes gave their lives to building a Jamaican state that would provide better conditions for our people…better healthcare, education, security, justice and a better economy. The Pandemic has placed all of this at risk, the longer we have to institute crude measures such as lockdowns and no-movements to keep you safe from infection-spread and prevent our healthcare system from collapsing. And in order to control the pandemic, we have to divert significant resources from other critical areas such as crime, garbage collection and roads. My brothers and sisters, my Jamaican family, our heroes did not give their lives to gain our freedom, for us to squander it on false information on social media, conspiracy theories and utter nonsense being espoused by pseudo prophets and rumour mongers. Our heroes, expect us to learn from our history, to be responsible citizens and take wise decisions about our personal health and protect the collective health of the society. Our history has shown that we have overcome health crises before; we can overcome the covid19 pandemic.
Inside each of you, there is a hero telling you to cast your fears aside, telling you not to wait and see, our history has already shown us how effective vaccines can be; telling you that this is about your survival, about your, livelihood, about your children being able to go back to school. Be the hero, do what is right, do what is smart. Let’s get vaccinated so that we can return full focus to continuing the mission of our heroes and Founding Fathers to build a just, progressive, and prosperous society.
God bless and protect you with wisdom and understanding, God keep his eternal light on our heroes, and God bless Jamaica.